(Paradiso XXXIII,145), Dante Alighieri

Though he evidently did not begin serious study of philosophy untilhis mid-twenties, Dante had already been intellectually challenged bythe work of a remarkable group of poets, practitioners of what he wouldlater recall as the dolce stil novo, in whose hands a lyricpoetry modelled on the canso of the Provençaltroubadours became a vehicle for serious enquiry into the nature oflove and human psychology. A generation earlier Guido Guinizzelli(1230–1276) had puzzled contemporaries with poems treating love interms of the technicalities of medicine and the cosmology of theschools, while celebrating in quasi-mystical language his lady's powerto elevate the spirit of her poet-lover:

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The Lady, exerting on her lover a power derived from the participationof her understanding in the divine, plays the role of the celestialintelligenze, who transmit the influence of the First Mover tothe universe at large. The poet is thus caught up in a circular processthrough which his understanding, like theirs, is drawn toward thedivine as manifested in the lady's divinely inspired radiance. ForGuinizelli this exploitation of the idea of celestial hierarchy isperhaps only a daring poetic conceit. For Dante it will become a meansto the articulation of his deepest intuitions.

ISTITUTO DANTE ALIGHIERI MILANO

By the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, Florence had descended into a state of political chaos as the Guelfs, who supported the Pope, and the Ghibellines, who supported the emperor, fought for political control of the city. The struggle for power between these two parties ended in 1289 at the Battle of Campaldino where the Florentine Guelf forces defeated the Tuscan Ghibelline army. Dante fought alongside his Florentine brothers at this historic battle which would have important consequences for his future.


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In 1301, when conflict arose between the “Blacks,” the faction moststrongly committed to Guelf and papal interests, and the more moderateWhites, Pope Boniface VIII instigated a partisan settlement whichallowed the Blacks to exile the White leadership, of whom Dante wasone. He never returned to Florence, and played no further role inpublic life, though he remained passionately interested in Italianpolitics, and became virtually the prophet of world empire in the yearsleading up to the coronation of Henry VII of Luxemburg as head of theHoly Roman Empire (1312). The development of Dante's almost messianicsense of the imperial role is hard to trace, but it was doubtlessaffected by his bitterness over what he saw as the autocratic andtreacherous conduct of Pope Boniface, and a growing conviction thatonly a strong central authority could bring order to Italy.

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This project was Dante's contribution to a long-standing Italiancultural tradition. His reading in philosophy began, he tells us, withCicero and Boethius, whose writings are in large part the record oftheir dedication to the task of establishing a Latinate intellectualculture in Italy. The Convivio and the De vulgarieloquentia preserve also the somewhat idealized memory of theNeapolitan court of Frederick II of Sicily (1195–1250) and his sonManfred (1232–66), intellectuals in their own right as well as patronsof poets and philosophers, whom Dante viewed as having revived theancient tradition of the statesman-philosopher [Van Cleve, 299-332;Morpurgo]. Dante himself probably studied under Brunetto Latini(1220–94), whose encyclopedic Livres dou Tresor (1262–66),written while Brunetto was a political exile in France, providedvernacular readers with a compendium of the Liberal Arts and a digestof Aristotelian ethical and political thought [Meier; Imbach (1993),37–47; Davis (1984), 166–97].

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Dante cites a dozen works of Aristotle, apparently at first hand, andshows a particularly intimate knowledge of the Ethics,largely derived, no doubt, from Thomas [Minio-Paluello]. But hisAristotelianism was nourished by other sources as well. Bruno Nardihas argued persuasively that his attitude toward the study ofphilosophy also owes a great deal to the more eclectic Albert theGreat [Nardi (1967); 63–72; (1992), 28–29; Vasoli (1995b); Gilson (2004)]. In Alberthe encountered a wide-ranging encyclopedism which included originalwork, experimental and theoretical, in natural science, and treatedAristotelian natural philosophy and psychology in the light of aneo-Platonism derived from Arabic philosophers and such Greco-Arabsources as the Liber de Causis, as well as the Christianneo-Platonist tradition of the Pseudo-Dionysius. Albert aimed todiscover Aristotle's own meaning, with the help of Greek and Arabcommentators who led him into disagreement with other Latini,including at certain points his pupil Thomas, and he asserts more thanonce that philosophy and theology are separate spheres ofknowledge. It was doubtless this willingness to pursue philosophy onits own terms that appealed to Dante, who also sought to distinguishphilosophical and religious knowledge without simply subordinating theformer to the latter.

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Dante's engagement with philosophy cannot be studied apart from hisvocation as a writer—as a poet whose theme, from first to last isthe significance of his love for Beatrice, but also as an intellectualstrongly committed to raising the level of public discourse. After hisbanishment he addressed himself to Italians generally, and devoted muchof his long exile to transmitting the riches of ancient thought andlearning, as these informed contemporary scholastic culture, to anincreasingly sophisticated lay readership in their own vernacular.